December 26th will be six months since I did the “big chop” (I was too impatient to grow out the relaxed hair) and I found myself relating to Latoya’s post, even though I didn’t transition over time.
Backstory: I literally don’t remember not having relaxed hair. I have friends who exclaim that they could never go natural because they remember sitting between their mothers knees’ on “wash day” and having their heads yanked back and forth as their naps were hot combed, twisted, braided, and plaited into submission. I have no memories of that. My mother preempted the difficulty by relaxing my hair — and she either doesn’t remember how young I was, or she won’t admit it, because I still don’t know when she started.
I don’t have traumatic wash day memories. My hair was always long, healthy, and straight (when I was in high school, kids would ask if I had a weave), and when I discovered the flat iron in college, it was super-silky and bouncy, too. I thought the aching scalp and oozing sores from chemical burns were just those things we endured for beauty. And anyway, they’d scab over in a week. Nevermind that 4-5 weeks later, I’d be peering in the mirror at my fuzzy hairline, and sliding my fingers up into my hair, simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by the nappy roots.
I went to an HBCU for four years, in a city where nappiness is common and embraced, but I never once considered going natural, because I was proud of my shiny hair. I relaxed because I A) didn’t think I would be as attractive without long, straight hair, B) did it at home, so it cost literally a tenth of what other women paid for salon visits and C) didn’t have visible damage to my hair or hairline other than the occasional split end.
My decision to go natural this year wasn’t fraught with worry, it was a natural progression. I’d been growing it out, but it began to bore me, so I cut it about 4 inches. I roller-set on tiny rods to approximate natural hair (ha!). Then I joined a gym and was annoyed at the crimp my hair was putting on my workout. I refused to be one of those black women who wouldn’t work out because her hair would get messed up, so something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be my fitness. And I began to resent the idea that it was my attractiveness was tied up in my chemically altered hair. I was Samson.
I went home to California this summer, and my dad cut my hair. He was a little nervous as he did it, but when it was done, he rubbed my head and said I looked good with my inch-and-a-half of hair. It actually looked terrible for about three days, as I had to take scissors to it repeatedly and trim off the permed ends he’d missed. My mother didn’t like it, but only because it was short. Within a week, she decided it “suited” me. My sister, who had locs for about 10 years, and had recently cut them off herself, was full of admiration.
The people at work (mostly whites and Asians) ooh-ed and aah-ed over it when I came in for the first time post-BC. “So cool!” “So perfect for summer!” “I love it!” My black female colleague asked a bunch of questions because she had been thinking about going natural.
Most of my friends and associates had the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves if they didn’t like it. Some black men seem to take a proprietary view of black womens’ hair, and I had male friends who told me they’d have to “see it in person” first to decide if it was okay. I rolled my eyes and kept it moving. Shortly before the big chop, I’d stopped seeing a guy for several reasons, one of which being his skepticism when I asked him what he thought of me cutting off the perm; but another close friend, who has slowly developed into something more, expressed pleasure at my cropped hair — he was happy that he could touch it, since most relaxed/weaved women he knew didn’t want hands anywhere near their heads.
As the months wore on, and my hair developed into its pattern of tight curls and coils, I realized I wasn’t getting nearly the volume of negativity I had expected. Only one black woman (with relaxed hair) at my company has made a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. I was telling her how much easier my hair was now, and she said, sort of offhand: “I guess we can’t have hair that’s both pretty and convenient, can we?” And then she giggled.
Toward the end of her post, Latoya writes:
But after I transitioned, I didn’t forget. I didn’t forget how shitty it felt to have other blacks use my hair as a litmus test for my personal politics or beliefs, or how annoyed I got with the preaching of the newly converted. I hated hearing about black women having an ingrained slave mentality when for many of us, we just adapted to the way the world views beauty. It was hard enough finding a stylist I liked doing relaxed hair – you say natural stylist and it’s like you’re trying to find the password to a members only club.
And I absolutely hated the implication that everyone, without exception, will find their hair to be fabulous and flawless and will never want to straighten their hair again. I talked to a great many people while going through the various stages of the transition and spoke to women who had been natural their whole lives, who had transitioned like I had, who kept a close crop, who went from wigs to natural and back again, those who decided to stop twisting and just lock it up, and women who had done the natural thing but realized that they preferred the relaxer.
And the only thing that remained constant was that these women were happiest doing what they wanted to do.
While I do encourage my relaxed friends to consider dumping the perm (usually when they’re complaining about maintenance and/or hair loss), I abhor the nappy acolytes who insist that the 75% of black women who relax are wearing visible shackles. For some women, it is just hair. For some, there is a genuine fear of the new growth that sprouts from the scalp. Most, I’d say, are between the two poles. And of course, black women don’t hold the patent on hair issues. My post was also inspired by one I saw on Jezebel about how much all men “hate” short hair. And one site I frequent, naturallycurly.com, has curlies/nappies of all races supporting each other in a culture where long, straight hair is most desirable.
I know this much is true: although I look at pictures of my old hair and find myself missing the length and shine, I’ll never relax my hair again. Having a choice, when once, I thought my only choice was a relaxer, is empowering. Knowing I can go back to the perm, and choosing not to makes me happier than bone-straight hair ever did.
Every aesthetic choice a woman makes is critiqued, but few choices are put under the microscope the way hair choices are. I suspect it’s because hair is so easy to change in dramatic ways. From ever blonder newscasters to Tyra’s and B’s lace front wigs, women continually make adjustments to their hair to become more attractive or simply to fit in. But there is a balance to be found between styling hair to express individuality, and styling hair to hide it.
The composite image is of me in March and October of 2008, respectively.